Even though overall electric bills are scheduled to go down next year for most Progress Energy Florida customers, a state lawmaker is complaining about an increase in the monthly fee for nuclear power projects that the Florida Public Service Commission approved this week.
The state utility regulators last week cut the monthly bill for a typical customer by $7.13.
That is a savings of about 6 percent, Suzanne Grant, a Progress Energy Florida spokeswoman, said Wednesday. For a residential customer using 1,000-kilowatt hours, which is about average, a bill would go down from $123.19 to $116.06.
Most of the reduction comes from the declining price of natural gas, which many conventional power plants now use for fuel.
The savings for Progress Energy customers could have been even more without the $1.93 increase on monthly bills for the nuclear fee, according to state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. The Public Service Commission approved the extra $142 million for Crystal River and the proposed Levy County nuclear power plants.
Fasano plans to introduce legislation next year to rescind the nuclear fee first approved by the state Legislature in 2006. At the time, proponents said the fee would help convince utilities to build nuclear power plants as an alternative to carbon-based fuels such as oil and coal.
Critics of the advanced nuclear fee say the advent of relatively cheap natural gas and regulatory, technical and safety issues and slack demand for electricity following the 2008 Florida housing market collapse make it unlikely Progress Energy will follow through with its plans to build two nuclear generating units in Levy County.
Progress Energy, however, says the Levy County plant remains in its plans.
Fasano called this week's PSC decision on the nuclear fee "yet another poke in the eye to the customers who may never see anything in return."
As a result, "customers may ultimately be paying for something that will never materialize," Fasano said of giving advance nuclear fee revenue to Progress Energy. So far customers have paid roughly $750 million in nuclear fee revenue, which the company does not need to refund.
"It's a joke," Fasano said. "They make money whether they build nuclear power plants or not."
Fasano argues that company stockholders should bear development expenses, not customers, before a plant goes into operation.
The advance nuclear cost recovery fee "lowers the total cost of the plant for customers," Grant countered. "It's like paying off your credit card every month."
The interest accumulates during design and construction of a plant, Grant explained. In the case of a power plant that burns natural gas, construction typically takes two to three years. Nuclear power plants take much longer to build, however, she said.
The monthly fee for nuclear plants also gives state lawmakers oversight each year on how the funds are spent, Grant added.
The new Levy County nuclear plant project would go into operation by 2024, if federal regulators grant a license next year.
Progress Energy's 35-year-old Crystal River nuclear generating unit has been offline since 2009, initially for refueling and later because of damage found in its containment structure. Progress Energy executives are exploring whether to repair the Crystal River nuclear unit or take it out of service. Its current operating license will expire in December 2016.